Saturday, March 21, 2015

Small Towns, Big Business

My father ran a small business in a small town. In fact, his experience spanned two small towns; in the first one, he was the second, "under-dog" business but ten years later, he ran a very successful, "top dog" business, building upon the reputation of the company he purchased in another small town down the highway.
Whether he was struggling to keep up or secure in the lead, he didn't change his methods of operation: He put his customers' needs first, which is easy to do when you structure your business around what they want, not what you want, but also when you live where you work and know the families you serve.
He also knew that community support runs both ways. A small business in a small town (or in a small neighbourhood in a big city) needs the local community to support it but as a small business owner, he knew that he needed to support the community as well. When he owned the "under-dog" business and was its sole employee, he was out every day sweeping the front walk, even if it didn't need sweeping. This allowed him to be seen but also to greet every person who walked by. He walked two blocks to the main street every afternoon to buy the daily newspaper so that he so that he could talk to the man running Woody's Smokeshop, so he could visit other businesses. So he could see and be seen out in the community.
A smile and a handshake are small gestures that mean a lot to people.
When a new company opened in the second small town, splitting the competition into three (from two) companies, my father made the decision to sell his business to a large corporation in order to save the jobs of his employees. The corporation was based in  Texas with its Canadian headquarters in Hamilton.
This was my first lesson in the disconnect between Big Business and small towns. When my father told his "overseers" to undercut the new guys in town in order to keep business, they wouldn't.
"These are our prices and this is what we charge," they said from their big desks in the big city. They don't understand that big city prices aren't possible in small towns.
My father knew how to run a small business in a small town; those savvy, smug corporate guys sold my father's business in five years because they didn't understand small towns and the needs -- and eccentricities -- of the people who live in those small towns.
Attend a pancake supper at a community hall? Put up a banner on the sideboards at the arena? Join a service club? Give that widow a break on the regular price because her husband left her in debt? This is what it takes to run a small business in a small town. You support my business and I'll support your event, your team, your fundraiser. We are in this together and we need each other.
We are losing this, I'm afraid, in these times of online communications and big box shopping, of corporate pandering and rural neglect. We are forgetting, to our peril, the personal connections in our small towns.
When we stop supporting each other -- whether we're shovelling snow from someone's driveway or handing over eight bucks for a plate of pancakes or putting an ad in the local newspaper -- we stop supporting the small town way of life.
You don't know what you have until it's gone.

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